If there is a gap between the generations, nowhere is it more evident than at the theater, where the average age tends to be well above retirement. So it’s difficult to understand why Amy Herzog’s soft-spoken play about a grandson and grandmother spending a few weeks together plays so resolutely to the younger generation’s self-absorption.
The play opens as Leo (Gabriel Ebert) shows up in the middle of the night with bike, tent and overloaded rucksack to couchsurf at the New York apartment of his grandmother Vera (Mary Louise Wilson). He’s fresh off a cross-country bike trip filled with (initially) unspoken sorrows; she’s coming to terms with losing her octogenarian friends and her vocabulary recall; but the two forge an alliance, borne largely of their conspiracy to hide Leo’s whereabouts from his worried mom (Vera’s daughter), their more or less overlapping political views, and Vera’s grandmotherly willingness to put up with a far-less-than-perfect houseguest, as long as he’s her grandson.
Wilson is pitch-perfect as the aging progressive, whose past social and sexual exploits impress her grandson, but whose moments of passive-aggressive paranoia and plain old-fashioned nagging get under his skin. Directed by Daniel Aukin, this slow-moving production allows Wilson time to build her complicated character, just as it allows Vera leisure to shuffle through her roomy apartment.
But Ebert doesn’t fare as well in his role of Leo. Although the play devotes increasing attention to Leo as it delves into the psychodramas that lie beneath his more-Zen-than-thou stance, the deeper we go, the shallower it gets. Both his estranged girlfriend Bec (Zoe Winters) and a casual pickup from Parsons in platform shoes (played with vigor and charm by Greta Lee) have far less stage time but far more presence than Leo, who seems to exist merely to have the layers of his psyche explained away. It’s not a role that anyone could make palatable, and Ebert, so excellent in Red, at least makes Leo a coherent character, though he can’t do much beyond that to redeem him. How can he, when the play has yet to learn the lesson Leo himself has not yet absorbed: Being screwed up does not make you interesting.
In the end, Vera’s story is all but submerged in Leo’s – which does perhaps illustrate a generational inevitability. But as Leo’s collegiate trials and triumphs take over the stage, it’s hard not to contrast them with Vera’s past, which is clearly deeper and richer, even in the glossing over the play gives it. Perhaps, with time, we’re supposed to think that Leo, too, will gain dramatic depth. Unfortunately, that’s left for another play.